OP-ED: What Do You Say To Those Graduating In Unique Times?

John Weingart | May 22, 2019 | Opinion
A leader at Eagleton Institute tells his students to take advice from his generation with ‘large grains of salt’

John Weingart
I had the opportunity earlier this month to speak at the closing ceremony for the 25 Rutgers University seniors completing the undergraduate associates program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. I joke that one reason I like my job talking with students about politics and government is that generally they are not as depressed as most of my friends — which is true, but didn’t point a path to any wisdom I could offer them about the times in which we live. I mostly have no idea what it is like to be them, so I decided to focus more on the world into which I graduated in 1970. Here are remarks I gave on May 8:

If you had heard any of us at Eagleton address you during your freshman year, you might have found us more confident of our knowledge and judgment than we are today. But, as you know well, during your sophomore year virtually everyone professing to have any political expertise was proven wrong about who the Republican Party would consider putting on a national ticket and who the general electorate could conceive of putting in the White House.

So when any of us try to offer advice now, take it with large grains of salt.

That said, you are graduating in times of significant flux, characterized by despair that societal problems seem overwhelming, the needs of millions of people are being unmet, and our immediate and long-term safety is threatened from multiple directions, from climate change to international relations to guns.

These times are unique.

But, then, all times are unique.

In another generation, plenty of havoc

On April 30 of the year I graduated from college, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States was engaged in a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. The next day, a student strike began that quickly swept the country. Large demonstrations took place on or near most colleges and universities with a wide variety of specific events and responses.

For me, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, it meant that all my last-semester grades became pass-fail as final exams were suspended.

But at Kent State University, the response by the Ohio governor was to send in National Guard troops who, on May 4, shot and killed four students and wounded nine others. This resulted in extensive news coverage for months, international outrage, long-lasting photos and even an enduring national hit song.

At least in retrospect, what happened 10 days later at the campus demonstration at Jackson State College in Mississippi was even worse. There, the police response included shooting 14 students, killing two of them. It was just like Kent State except there was far less press coverage, no widespread outrage and no iconic photos or hit songs.

Probably needless to say, the students at Kent State were white, and, at Jackson State, black.

Over the following half-century, my generation has done some good things. Music comes to mind as one area where I think we’ve had a pretty good impact. Overall, however, we are not — as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts would advocate — leaving the campground in better shape than we found it.

Just yesterday, a student at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado was shot and killed, and eight others wounded apparently by fellow students. With the pace of news today, this tragedy will likely be all but forgotten within a week or two, and certainly neglected by the time of the next election.

Things to think about

So, it’s time for your generation. Thank mine for our intentions and maybe for our service, and help push us off center stages. While you think, as you should, about your immediate personal future, also start to imagine how you would like life to be different under the next president whenever she or he takes office:

  • What do you want the role of government to be?
  • How can it help people, especially those in greatest need?
  • Are there ways for more people to become less angry?
  • Are there ways to build communities that are more diverse, welcoming, and supportive?
  • And what can you do — and what do you want to do — to help make those things happen?